Frontline Rush Limbaugh’s America

Correspondent: Peter Boyer.

Correspondent: Peter Boyer.

The toothlessness of the generally first-rate “Frontline’s” circumnavigation of Rush Limbaugh implies a PBS on the defensive. “Rush Limbaugh’s America” would have trouble taking a bite out of a toy balloon, let alone a gas bag. On second thought, if it’s appeasement the right is seeking from what it tends to label as the left-wing enemy, the media, something this bland could actually make some friends in Congress.

Right at the top comes the foreboding narration: “Rush Limbaugh declined to be interviewed for this program.” The implication is obvious: Either what follows is so good that the subject of the investigation feared he’d be unable to remove his pelt from the nailing, or it’s so harmlessly blah that it wasn’t worth the effort of acknowledgement. Sadly, it’s the latter.

“Rush” is no match for Rush. Funny, crude, loud, overbearing, oversize and overzealous, Limbaugh is everything the show isn’t. Sometimes objective journalism needs to take the gloves off and get a little dirty — stand up straight instead of bending over backward. David can beat Goliath, but only if he has the tools.

Love him or hate him, Limbaugh is a remarkably American phenomenon. A Sinclair Lewis character for the post-modern age, he’s a plugged-in Elmer Gantry , a snake-oil salesman pitching his own firebrand of secular religion with himself cast in the starring role — be it prophet or profiteer.

“Frontline” tries to tap at Limbaugh’s roots, but mostly comes up with sap — from his mother, his brother and such starry-eyed acolytes as former GOP Rep. Vin Weber and conservative strategist William Kristol.

Former co-workers paint him as an archetypal lonely guy and something of a social misfit; the only place he ever really felt comfortable was in the radio booth.

There is one fine, dramatic and poignant moment in the show — again, it’s not new, but at least it’s here. At the start of Limbaugh’s TV career, viewers got a glimpse of a bully backing down (and a reason that Limbaugh today eschews guests and debate on the air); two audience members, a passionate feminist and an equally vocal gay man, refuse to be silenced by his presence.

Limbaugh returns from commercial break to face an empty audience — the only kind he could control.

His legion of factoids and errors are brought up and glossed over. But the real disappointment in “Rush Limbaugh’s America” is in its roster of critics, and the way they’ve been handled.

Radio personality Don Imus might have had some fun things to say, but he’s made quick work of; on the other hand, Clinton strategist Paul Begala is allowed to keep droning. Rush’s own “dittoheads” seem like a circle of Athenian solons by comparison.

There is a great show to be built around Limbaugh’s ascendancy, his hold over those in power, and his genius at building a small empire based on understanding the sad reality that the average American is more comfortable in the role of dittohead than trailblazer.

This isn’t it. A more worthy opponent might have brought Limbaugh himself out to play, and, in the process, garnered a showcase notch for “Frontline’s” belt.

Frontline Rush Limbaugh's America

(Tues. (28), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

Production: Filmed by Frontline. Producer, Stephen Talbot; writers, Peter J. Boyer, Talbot; reporter, Rick Young; additional reporting, Jim Mokhiber.

Crew: Editor, Wendy Wank; camera, Peter Pearce; sound, Dennis Towns, Rick Patterson, Kevin Cates, David Porter; senior producer for Frontline, Michael Sullivan; exec producer for Frontline, David Fanning.

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